My most popular posts of 2013, plus a mini-review

Colourful Spanish wear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

Spanish swear words are fascinatingly anatomical and religious.

You lot seem to think I’m quite amusing. What am I, funny like a clown?

En serio – my most popular new posts, published last year, are mostly silly ones. Well, not silly – highly intelligent, witty and astute, of course.

Plus a bit of culture – phew! I wouldn’t like to think you come to my refined blog just for some light entertainment. Por favor!

So what can’t you get enough of? Let’s find out.

The top five most-viewed Scribbler in Seville blog posts of 2013 are (drum roll):

1) Five Things Spanish People Say (And What they Really Mean) 

This is also my all-time most popular post. A controversial look (see comments) at how to know when someone means something totally different from what you think they’re saying. OK, so it’s actually about swearing, exaggeration/fibbing – and jamón. The stuff of real-conversations life here in Spain.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers' interpretations of Zurbaran's saints.

Number two post of 2013: contemporary Spanish fashion designers do Zurbaran’s saints.

2) Art+fashion+religion=a richly-textured show in Seville

Frocks by contemporary designers reinterpreting famous paintings of saints by 17th-century Sevillano artist Zurbaran. Dead clever. This one was “Freshly Pressed” (as in the badge, top right), which means it’s one of only eight posts chosen by the kind folks at WordPress to feature each day from the tens of thousands posted daily. Which was nice. So if you found my blog through Freshly Pressed, a special hello – it’s good to have you.

3) False Friends and other Fine Messes

We’ve all made an arse of ourselves by mixing up two similar-sounding words in a foriegn language – one innocuous, the other devastatingly embarrassing or offensive. If you haven’t let us in on your experience yet (the comments are much more entertaining than the post, believe me; careful you don’t spill your tea on your PC or tablet as you chortle), then come on over and join the group therapy session – it’s time to spill.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

Ceramic celosia (Moorish lattice screen) of new museum.

4) Celebrating Seville’s azulejo heritage: a sneak preview of Centro Ceramica Triana

Ah, some more history and culture *breathes a sigh of relief*. This museum of tiles, with a winning mix of groovy contemporary architecture, original Moorish brick kilns and some exquisite antique azulejos, was scheduled to open in September 2013, then October, then November, then December, and it’s still not open in January 2014… you get the picture. Well, what do you expect? We’re in Spain, people! Which makes this post even more valuable, as it’s all you can see of it for now.

cadiz, carnaval

The Queen with her Beefeaters. Sort of.

5) Carnaval de Cadiz, family style

Where can you find sea urchins, sand architecture, man-sized bumble bees, and the Queen in drag? At Spain’s craziest carnival, of course. Probably our best daytrip of the year, out of many. And we even dressed up, sort of.

I know I’m also supposed to say Where I Went and What I Did last year in the round-up, so here goes with my new discoveries: Doñana National Park; Ubeda, Baeza, and picual olive oil; Paul Read; Latin-American belenes; the Feria de Jerez; Mr Henderson’s Railway; Costa Ballena, and a cooking class. As you can see, an international jetsetter I am not (used to be, many years ago). National neither; daytrips in Andalucia, often with the family, is more my thing.

I hope you enjoy reading these posts. As long as at least one of them raises a smile, I’m doing my job.

Five things Spanish people say a lot (and what they really mean)

Captain Haddock's outbursts pale into comparison against Spanish swear words.

Captain Haddock’s outbursts are a lot less colourful than some Spanish expressions.

I’ve written about lots of fiestas lately – music, dancing, flamenca dresses and general Andalucian excess on all fronts, laughing in the face of austerity and denying the very existence of “la cosa“, as some prefer to refer to la crisis obliquely, thereby avoiding the ugly necessity of naming the beast.

Additionally, in an outrageous miscarriage of justice (the vote was clearly rigged) I didn’t make it to the final six of the BIBs mummy blogging awards, travel section – but many thanks to those who so kindly voted for me. For this reason, while I nurse my wounded pride, I will set aside the topics of family and travel for a few weeks.

So, as a change of tack, in this post I’m looking at Spanish expressions which have caught my attention over the years. As a writer, translator, sometime English teacher and language graduate, I am always fascinated by the use of castellano - I think stretching that part of my brain was one of the main reasons I moved abroad in the first place.

From embarrassing mistakes, to unusual words, I am constantly intrigued by how my my bilingual kids mix their languages; pondering, quizzing, driving my semi-literate husband mad – “What does this word mean? How is its meaning different from that one? Which of them is stronger/ruder/more typically Andaluz?”

After living here in Spain for nearly ten years, and in Spanish-speaking countries for a year longer than that, I’m increasingly aware of subtleties and subtexts in what those around me are saying. I wouldn’t call myself an expert by any stretch, but I’m slowly adding to my stock of colloquial phrases that I might tentatively try out for the first time, to be greeted by peals of laughter from friends and family, and delighted, gently piss-taking cries of “Que andaluza estas hecha, Feeee-onn-a!”

So here goes, with my five chosen Spanish expressions, which reveal telling points about Spanish society and culture. When I’ve blogged about such topics before, it’s drawn quite a response, so I await with interest to see what people make of this list.

**Warning: offensive language content (or at least I think it is)**

1) “Me cago en la leche/en dios/en tu puta madre/en la madre que te pario/en todos tus muertos”
(I shit on the milk/on god/on your whore of a mother/on the mother who bore you/on all your ancestors)

Palabrotas (swear words; literally, big ugly words – thanks to my linguistic consultant Mary for that one!) are used freely and without conscience by both sexes and all ages here in Spain. I remember a friend being horrified to hear her boyfriend’s sweet, lovable old granny swearing like a brickie at lunch one Sunday. Similarly, it’s shocking when such oaths come out of little kids’ mouths (not my own, I hasten to add – that would almost be enough to justify mild corporal punishment. Almost). Especially with the graphic nature of the language used.

Remember that Spain is still a Catholic country, where mothers are held sacred – both the Virgin, and one’s own. The force of the third oath in my list, and the contradiction with this hallowed matriarchal status, is illogical and deeply disturbing. Yes, yes, I know these expressions have lost all their force now, or at least it’s been massively diluted, through over-use. Noone actually thinks about what they’re saying when the words come out of their mouths. But I still wince when I hear it – especially in the years since I myself have “pario“. What an old prude, eh?

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

Blue skies mean the heat is on.

2) “Que calor!/Que frio!”
(It’s so hot! It’s so cold!)

Spain is a land of extremes – that’s one of the things I love about it. Everything is black or white – the opposing emotions of grief and joy, as expressed in that most Andalucian of art forms, flamenco. The full-on all-night partying at the Feria, in the midst of the worst financial situation Spain has ever experienced. As the saying goes(can you tell I love sayings?), they don’t do things by halves.

The same is true for the weather – in November, as soon as the temperature drops below 10 degrees, it’s all “Ay! Que frio!”, and on with the Boots. Andaluces, I have two words for you: British winter. I am usually colder inside my house than out, so my discomfort stems more from substandard Spanish building (our “old” house is 30 years young), than from sub-zero exterior temperatures.

In April, as the skies clear to their gorgeous rich blue, the sun regains its full force, and you bare your arms for the first time in months (yes, non-Spain dwellers, we do wear more than one layer for part of the year), people cry in anguish, wiping their brows, “Pero que calor hace!” as if they’ve just arrived from Siberia and are totally unaccustomed to sweating at 9.30 in the morning. Not as if they’re Andaluces who have lived here all their lives, as most have.

Noone (except me) ever says “Que buena temperatura!” – what a lovely temperature! God, I’m so English, aren’t I?

Gazpacho andaluz - chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard's mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

Gazpacho andaluz – chilled tomato soup, as made to perfection by every Spaniard’s mother. Credit: Harlan Harris, under Creative Commons licence.

3) “Mi madre hace el mejor gazpacho del mundo”
(My mother makes the world’s best gazpacho)

If I had a euro for every time I’d heard this, it would be me bailing Sr Rajoy out, instead of Sra Merkel. Gazpacho is a mainstay in the summer months, with every Spanish señora worth her garlic keeping a container of the red stuff in her fridge at all times during the hot summer months, ready to provide her extended family (ie, me) with a refreshing shot of cold liquidized veggies (Andaluzes generally drink gazpacho from a glass, rather than a bowl.)

This chilled soup of tomatoes, cucumber, onion, pepper, garlic, bread, and that essential, ubiquitous Andalucian product, olive oil, is as andaluz as its gets – all typical seasonal ingredients which everyone grows in their huerta. In the mid-20th century, many Andalucians lived off the land as they had no other option, so it’s a classic subsistence dish. It’s so easy, even a lazy and reluctant cook like me can make it. There are various camps – (sherry) vinegar or not, bread makes it salmorejo (no – salmorejo only has tomatoes, not the rest of the salad box). But whatever her recipe, each person’s mum has the superlative blend.

"I've only had two beers." Yeah, right, and I'm Nigella Lawson.

“I’ve only had two beers.” Yeah, right, and I’m Nigella Lawson.

4) “Solo he tomado dos o tres cervezas/No he bebido nada”
(I’ve only had two or three beers/I haven’t drunk anything)

There are two issues here: first, in Andalucia, beer is not considered alcohol. It’s a soft drink. It does not affect your ability to drive in any way at all, and you can put away as much as you like before getting behind the wheel of your car and driving your merry way home. So not drinking alcohol (“no he bebido nada”) does not equal not drinking beer, if you’ll excuse the double negative.

The second is the Andaluz tendency to either under- or over-exaggurate. As agreed with friends also married to Spanish men, “I’ve only had two beers”, the customary protest as your nappy-sensitized nose detects a whiff of cerveza on your mysteriously-late-arriving-home-husband, actually means about five or six. Under intense questioning, they admit to four, which pushes the genuine tally up to eight; and six – well, that’s a full-on drinking sesion.

(Caveat: I’m not saying that all Andalucian men do this, obviously. But there are plenty who do.)

meat, jamon, ham, vegetarian

Who the f*** put jamon in my salmorejo?

5) “Pero jamon no es carne”
(But jamon isn’t meat)

As any vegetarian who has been presented with a salad delicately sprinkled with little chunks of cured pig will know, jamon iberico is not considered within the earthly realms of meat in Spain (and even less so here, where we’re pig-snuffling distance from the Sierra de Huelva), and therefore is not described as such. Its provenance is more celestial, and it cannot be qualified or categorized alongside mere mortal iberico (prime pork) products such as salchichon or chorizo. It is, quite simply, on a higher plane, and an unquestionably essential element of life. And, it seems, of salads, soups, and other dishes described on menus as being “vegetarian”. The fact that we might not want it doesn’t seem to occur to them – why on earth wouldn’t we?

(My carnivorous friends wax lyrical about its tender texture and sweet, nutty flavour, plus its super-healthy oleic acid content.)

When you tell Spanish people you’re a vegetarian, you have to spell it out, very carefully and precisely, that this means you don’t eat chicken or jamon either. “WHAT?” they exclaim. “You don’t eat JAMON? You mean you’ve never even TRIED it?” The outrage is palpable – you’re clearly causing offence by disrespecting their hallowed ham. It’s like telling an English person you don’t like football, or the Queen. The look of bemused astonishment, the head scratching. How can this be possible? Yes, sir, I do not eat ham. I do not like it (Sam I am). The moral of the story is: vegetarians, if you don’t want jamon - on any of your dishes – be sure to tell your waiter firmly: “sin jamon, por favor”.

So there you have it – another over-generalised view from a foreigner who calls Spain their home. It’s a frustrating country in many ways, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else.

Please remember, before you tap out an outraged reply, that I AM ENGLISH and my tongue is firmly IN MY CHEEK. If you don’t know what that means, look it up.

Have you heard any curious expressions or sayings that reveal something fascinating about Spanish society and culture? Tell me, I’d love to hear!

False friends and other fine messes

spain, spanish, language, learnOne of the things that always astonishes – and depresses – me about long-term expats here in Spain is how many of them have a grasp of Spanish somewhere between weak and non-existent. This might be because they haven’t been here long, or only stay for short periods, or because they’re studying but are finding it a struggle. But there are plenty who just never bother, aren’t interested, because they live in an expat ghetto and only ever interact with other English people – at the pub, restaurant, cafe, social occasions. What’s the point of living in a country if you can’t interact with its natives?

I guess it’s a matter of personal taste, but that was never the expat experience I was after. While I can’t boast a huge army of Spanish bosom buddies with whom (on whom?) to practise, and thereby improve and expand, my linguistic skills, my Spanish is decent; my accent, however, is not. When I first arrived, I already had a reasonable level; however, that didn’t stop me from getting in a pickle, and making an arse of myself on regular occasions.

Here are some of the stupid mistakes I made early on in my nine years here in Seville, which I hope will serve to a) entertain, and b) inform. Some are similar words which are easily confused, while others are so-called “false friends” – misleading words which resemble those of another language – in this case, English – while having a different meaning. They hold out the hand of friendship to you, and then cruelly snatch it away, laughing at your pain and confusion.

For many years, I was confused by the idea of a control on the motorway – how can they control my car? Using some scary super-high-tech remote sensor? But no – it’s a check, as in speed/alcohol motorway check.

As many women will have found out to their cost, embarazada does not mean doing something a bit silly which makes you blush; it means up the duff.

I also found it illogical (captain) and deeply muddling that subir means to go up, when sub is down – submarine, submerge, subnormal

One that I still haven’t got my head round is hemeroteca , which means archive – I cannot quite accept that it is not in any way connected to “homoerotic”. But maybe that says more about me.

It’s also muddling that esperar means hope, wait and expect – that’s a fairly broad net to be spreading. “I´m hoping to see you,”, “I’m waiting to see you”, and “I’m expecting to see you” – think of the room for misunderstanding.

I used to regularly order “un vaso de agua de grifa” – “a glass of spliff water”, while my now-husband died quietly of embarrassment. Grifa=jazz cigarette, grifo=tap.

As someone who writes about hotels, I’m incapable of walking (or driving, come to that) past an interesting-looking one without stopping, going inside for a nose around, and asking for a brochure. The look on the receptionist’s face (especially if it was a man) used to be a picture, as I merrily asked, “Me das un follete?” “Can I have a fuck?” Other half wasn’t too thrilled with that one, either. Follete=fuck, folleton = leaflet.

I have to admit that this isn’t mine, but it’s too good to pass up. A fellow Sevillana expat was visiting a family in Ecuador, and they were deciding which of their chickens to kill for dinner. As they chased the unfortunate bird to prepare it for the pot, my friend lamented “pobrecito polla”. She was confused as to why the family were helpless with mirth. Polla=male sex organ, pollo=chicken.

What confusions and embarrassments have you suffered while learning another language? Especially, though not only, Spanish?

Nine things I’ve learned while living in Spain



If you live here too, you may have experienced some of these quirks – and learned how to deal with them; and if you don’t – well, it’s a little insight into living in this intense, upside-down part of the world.

Some of these may be peculiar to Seville, in which case I’d love to hear what experiences other people have had in different cities around Spain.

1) Sales assistants are not there to help you (as if!)

If you have the temerity to walk into a shop and interrupt the dependiente (shop assistant)’s in-depth conversation with her colleague about the new boots/haircut/boyfriend she’s got her eye on, don’t expect a welcoming smile. At best: a scathing glare. At worst: you’ll be ignored. Similarly, if you’re bold enough to ask them for assistance – availability of item in different size/colour – you’ll be met with a bald “No!” – As in, “No, I don’t know if we have it”, “No, I’m not going to look”, and “No, I don’t care if I’m being unhelpful. You interrupted Carmen telling me about her hot date last night. Now get out of my face, guiri.” One well-known department store (the clue is in the photo) is especially notorious for the baaad-assed attitude of its sales ladies.

What not to say: “So, what did you really want to be? Before you became a sales assistant?”

2) Read it and weep (and then call to complain)

Scour your bank transactions (they send you a little slip for each individual one here, rather than a monthly statement like in the UK – an environmental crime by any standards) for strange, inexplicable transactions or fees. Banks often trying to slip charges in unnoticed, relying on people not reading those little stashes of paper carefully. If you query such a fee, it will often be refunded immediately and without argument. The same goes for phone bills – you can be unwittingly signed up, and charged, for premium services which add tens of euros to your monthly bill. Call and they’ll cancel them, no problem. However with traffic fines, it’s a different story – they can be taken out of your bank account without your permission or even knowledge (embargar la cuenta), and it is virtually impossible to get them refunded. In short: watch all bills like a hawk, and if in doubt, call and query.

What not to say: “You’re doing this on purpose because I’m foreign and therefore rich, stupid and fair game, aren’t you?”

3) Thank you kindly

Social etiquette is very different here – don’t expect notes of thanks for presents or parties, or even replies to invitations. I’ve hosted barbeques where I’ve been expecting anything from 10 to 25 people –  an interesting catering challenge. And when I invited 25 school friends to my son’s fifth birthday, with an RSVP and phone number underlined, how many mothers do you think replied? One – and she’s German. If I do get a note/email/phone call to thank afterwards, I am overwhelmed with delight. (My own efficiency in sending thank yous to family back in the UK has become correspondingly sloppy.)

What not to say: “Oh, sorry, you didn’t reply, so I assumed you weren’t coming.”

Credit: Alan Cleaver under Creative Commons licence

Credit: Alan Cleaver/Flickr under Creative Commons licence

4) Be fashionably late

Don’t turn up on time when meeting people socially – you’ll be standing around for at least half an hour. The Andalucian idea of time is, to put it politely, elastic. And once you’ve been here for a while, you’ll know that if you’re meeting your girlfriends for tapas at 9pm, don’t even think about arriving until after 9.30pm, or you’ll be nursing a glass of wine on your tod and trying to avoid eye contact with the opposite sex (or not, depending). In case your friends are even later than anticipated, a book or smartphone will keep you from looking conspicuously stood-up (or just sad and desperate).

What not to say: “But we said 9pm! You’re half an hour late!”

5) Run that by me again

Don’t be surprised if people sneer at you with a contemptuous expression when you try to communicate in their language (“¿QUE?”) – such rudeness is, sadly, normal. I still haven’t got used to it. Now I’m not saying my Spanish is perfect, and my accent is not great either, but their inability to comprehend me is more down to their lack of effort in trying to do so, than in my poor command of the local language.

What not to say: “I’m sorry my Spanish is so bad, it must be terrible for you trying to understand me.”

6) Mama rules in la cocina. End of story

Don’t be shocked if, when eating in a family home, the mother doesn’t sit down at the table and eat her meal with you. She will make sure everyone else has their food, before eating herself. Extraordinary but true. The first time I ate at my suegra’s house, I got up after I’d finished, to take my plate into the kitchen. She looked at me and said, “I’ll do that,” in such a way that I realised I’d crossed a boundary, and so I didn’t make the same mistake again. And you certainly don’t offer to help with the cooking, which is taken as an insult about her abilities in the kitchen. And never, ever imply, even in jest, that a Spanish woman’s culinary skills are anything other than exemplary. Every Spanish man says his mother’s gazpacho is the best ever – don’t even bother arguing, it’s not worth it – it’s his sacred place.

What not to say: “Is it me, or is this a bit overdone?”

(Unfortunately us non-Spanish don’t get anything as snazzy as the electronic DNI – just a scruffy piece of paper.)

7) Copy copy copy, check check check

If you’re going to any government office – Social Security, Registry, Hacienda (tax office) – triple-check you have all essential documents before leaving, such as ID (DNI, passport, birth certificate), Certificado de Empadronamiento (recent). Similarly, whenever applying for any job/school/nursery/course/benefit take at least five photocopies of all essential documents (the originals will be signed in blue, so you know which they are). And a book. And a bottle of water. You’ll be waiting in the queue for a while. Also, when collecting an official document, read it carefully before you sign it, to make sure the essential information is correct. A friend had her baby’s birth certificate filled out with her husband’s two surnames, rather than his first one, then her own. So her baby’s name is legally wrong. This short film about someone visiting the Seguridad Social office to register as autonoma (freelance) is very funny. An exagguration of all the paperwork needed, perhaps, but you get the point. (Thanks to Ben for giving me the link, as I couldn’t find it.)

What not to say: “Oops, I forgot to bring a copy. Why don’t you take the original?”

Credit: Black Country Museum/Flickr under Creative Commons licence

Credit: Black Country Museums/Flickr under Creative Commons licence

During the eight years I’ve lived here in Spain, I can’t count the number of times I’ve been jaw-droppingly astonished at the unfathomably strange behaviour of people here in various everyday situations.

8) Pull on your red… boots, baby

In Spain, as soon as November arrives, there’s a little-known piece of legislation which dictates that all Spanish women must discard their shoes and put on boots. Long, short, flat, high-heeled – every female will have her legs encased in leather for the next four months. Even if it’s sunny and 20 degrees. No, it’s winter, therefore it’s “cold” (er, no it’s not), and therefore I wear my boots. That is all.

What not to say: “Don’t your feet get a bit sweaty in this heat?”

9) Don’t be a litter lout – even if they are

Dropping litter is a national sport in Spain. Watch any person – child, middle-aged or elderly – eating in the street, and I’ll bet you my local rubbish container they drop the wrapper on the ground. Not sneakily or with any shame, just straight-out. No bad conscience, because such behaviour is not ill-thought-of here – they’re used to dropping pistachio shells and those teeny weeny napkins on the floor of tapas bars. Litter bins are just for decoration.

What not to say: (Pointing to rubbish bin) “Ever seen one of those? Know what it’s for?”

Are there any aspects of Spanish customs which you find particularly strange, annoying or hard to understand? Tell me!

In a right lio

Just a quickie, a few observations on the delights of bringing up bilingual kids.

My kids (aged 4.5 and 2) both speak English and Spanish. My son (4.5) can switch fairly easily between the two (he speaks English to me, and Spanish to his Dad). His vocabulary is better in English – he struggled a bit with his Spanish when he started school, especially the first term, despite having been at nursery for two years already.  But he’s come on amazingly, and I love listening to him talk to his Dad, “Papa”.

I’m so used to him switching languages, I don’t notice it any more, but when friends come round to visit, or we’re at a park get-together, his bilingualism gets commented on. I take it for granted, though I’ve lost count of the number of people (mostly Spanish) who remark on how lucky he is to have both languages. English classes for their kids are often their number one consideration.

One of his biggest confusions is saying “that’s why” when he means “because” (porque) – normally I only have to correct him once on his grammar (I’m an English teacher and a journalist, so he doesn’t stand a chance, poor thing) and he gets it straight away. But this time, because there’s the confusion of ¿por que? (why) and porque (because), he’s got himself into a right lio.

My daughter (2) mixes the two languages – mostly the nouns in English and the verbs in Spanish (from her nursery, I guess) – “VEN AQUI, DOGGIE!” “QUIERO RICE CAKE!” “VAMONOS, BATHTIME!” , “OTRA VEZ PLANE!” It used to be “patos” (zapatos), now it’s “shoes”. Or, when she wants to be taken out of her cot “QUIERO OUT!”. All shouted at full volume, Spanish style. Like most girls, and especially second children, she’s picked up loads more words than my son had at her age, and can express simple ideas quite clearly.

As with everything to do with bringing up children, it’s a learning experience for all of us. But, for me as a linguist, one of the more enjoyable.